Carlos Cardoso Aveline

A Psychoanalysis of Religions

The critical examination of religions is unavoidable in the Middle East and elsewhere. And the reason is simple: after several millennia of profoundly religious civilizations, one can still see such a degree of spiritual ignorance, despair and suffering around the world that there must be something tremendously wrong in conventional religions.

Admittedly, one thing is the divine world and another one — quite different — is the imperfect idea we have of it. Everything one may think of God was created by men. Divinity is a mirror on which we project not only our hopes and noble feelings, but also our ignorance, both individually and collectively.

It is enough to look at the human history of the last 2,000 years to recognize an immense amount of cruelty, madness, war and massacres which were blessed and stimulated in the name of all kinds of deities. Faith in God has been used as an alibi and an excuse for some of the worst crimes in the history of mankind, including anti-Semitism, often disguised in the present century as “anti-Zionism”. Taking this into consideration, it will be helpful to observe our religions from the point of view of the ethical scientist who invented Psychoanalysis in the first half of twentieth century, in order to better understand the process of human suffering.

Real Psychology, just as the authentic esoteric tradition, invites us to be self-responsible before life and to abandon the bad habit of ascribing our mistakes to the “will of God”. If one wants to experience the religiosity of the new times, whose foundation is the liberty of thought, one must confront the dark side of the authoritarian religiosity inherited from ancient times.

A different relationship with the divine world — away from dogmas and open to change — can lead us with no unnecessary waste of time to a new age of solidarity among all beings. A certain amount of persistence will be necessary, because truth is subversive and uncomfortable. It threatens mental routine. It shows us things we might prefer to ignore.

For instance, starting in 1492 the whole “New World” of the Americas was occupied by European countries in the name of God and aiming at the salvation of the souls of its indigenous nations. The beautiful display of Christian piety and generous words was mainly a varnish covering the true colonialist goals, which were commercial, political, geopolitical and strategic.  There was a wide gap between sweet speech and murderous practice combined: the “Christian” genocide of indigenous people across the Americas has gigantic proportions yet to be properly calculated.

No religion is beyond criticism.

The Indian nation has one of the richest and most inspiring spiritual traditions. Yet most of the population in India still lives in misery, many a politician, there, is corrupt, and the great leader of the country’s independence, Mohandas Gandhi, was assassinated in cold blood in 1948 by fanatics inspired by religious feelings. Gandhi was murdered because he wanted mutual tolerance and peaceful coexistence between people of different faiths. India today invests a fortune in atomic weapons which could promote social justice instead. There is a nuclear arms tension between India and Pakistan, and the two are deeply religious nations.

Most Arab nations are pious and mystical, no doubt, but why have some of their sects and leaders such a systematic hatred against the Jews and, in some cases, against the whole Western society? A few Jewish religious groups may fight Israel, the Jewish nation, and do that by using violence.

Buddhism is not entirely free from mistakes. Some famous Buddhist leaders and monks who came to the West became complete failures and frauds in moral terms, while trying to keep the appearance of “enlightened beings” and better deceive their perplexed followers and disciples.[1]

No one can doubt that Christianity is among the biggest religions in the world. But why should the Christian authorities have to assassinate so many thousands of people in the name of Jesus, and to humiliate, torture and burn during the long years of the Inquisition anyone who seemed to disagree with any of its dogmas, among which the absurdities, by the way, were far too many?

Portuguese priest António Vieira (1608-1697), for example, was one of the most influential thinkers in Europe in his time. A pioneer of the ethics in Politics, he fiercely attacked corruption in governments. He defended the rights of indigenous peoples and was friendly towards the Jews [2]. An independent thinker with messianic ideas, Vieira lived various years as a prisoner in the dungeons of the “Holy” Inquisition, being questioned by murderers who called themselves Cardinals and “men of God”. He was lucky not to be assassinated.[3]

In the beginning of 19th century, the remarkable mystic and mason Hipólito José da Costa escaped from the prison of the Inquisition in Portugal and went to London, where he founded the first Brazilian newspaper, “Correio Braziliense”. Thousands of other persons couldn’t survive the persecution promoted by religious fanaticism.  Hundreds of millions lived under the threat of being tortured to death if denounced to the murderers of the Church, and had no liberty of thought. When is it that the Vatican will interrupt its connections with organized crime and make an honest self-criticism regarding its offenses against humanity?  How could a church do so much cruelty in the name of Jesus? Surprisingly to some, Sigmund Freud helps Theosophy explain such religious crimes and many other absurdities.

In spite of their beautiful rites and ceremonies, their heavenly promises, their threats regarding hell and their sincere adoration of man-made gods, a large majority of the priests in the different religions has been transmitting to their followers, implicitly by their deeds and not by their words, a message morally dangerous:

“Do what I say, don’t do what I do.”

The double-face morality of old religiosities which feed on appearance cannot stand on its feet in the 21st century any longer.  The karmic and historic conditions have now ceased to sustain the hypocritical divorce between theory and practice, ideal and life, word and action. If blind materialism and the absence of ethical values threaten our civilization, this means present-day religions are failing.

The alternative is an honest self-examination, individual and collective. Each one must take care mainly of his or her own purification, for no one is exempt from mistakes. Spiritual and esoteric associations face the same dangers of illusion and hypocrisy as  conventional religions. In some “esoteric” circles, one can find everywhere an “avatar”, a “high initiate” or someone who is “channeling” great beings and masters of the wisdom of his own imagination. Naïve prophets play the theatrical role of personal saints, trying to deceive both themselves and others. In the majority of cases, they believe their own fantasies.  Helena Blavatsky was painfully right as she said that along the spiritual path one of the most important things is to keep one’s common sense.[4]

According to Sigmund Freud, the emergence of religions in human history took place side by side with the building of organized societies. God is born in the mind of man as a cosmic projection of his own personal parent.

Just like a father, God punishes and sets limits. As long as we obey him and behave ourselves, he protects us from evil and destruction. All along history, whenever there was a need to organize society, people had to repress their instincts. Freud wrote in his essay “The Future of an Illusion” that God emerges in human mind as a mechanism to create order in the psychological world of primitive man:

“It is remarkable that, little as men are able to exist in isolation, they should nevertheless feel as a heavy burden the sacrifices which civilization expects of them in order to make a communal life possible. Thus civilization has to be defended against the individual, and its regulations, institutions and commands are directed to that task. They aim not only at effecting a certain distribution of wealth but at maintaining that distribution; indeed, they have to protect everything that contributes to the conquest of nature and the production of wealth against men’s hostile impulses. Human creations are easily destroyed, and science and technology, which have built them up, can also be used for their annihilation.” [5]

Freud writes that “men are not spontaneously fond of work”, and rational arguments “are of no avail against their passions”.[6]  Thus, the whole civilization rests on the compulsion to work and a renunciation of instinct (p.12). Among the repressed impulses one finds those of incest, cannibalism and “lust for killing” (p.13).

The creator of Psychoanalysis observes “with surprise and concern” that “a majority of people obey the cultural prohibitions on these points only under the pressure of external coercion”.[7] The same occurs regarding the moral behaviour of people in a wider sense:

“Most of one’s experiences of man’s moral untrustworthiness fall into this category [of the absence of external pressure]. There are countless civilized people who would shrink from murder or incest but who do not deny themselves the satisfaction of their avarice, their aggressive urges or their sexual lusts, and who do not hesitate to injure other people by lies, fraud and calumny, so long as they can remain unpunished for it; and this, no doubt, has always been so through many ages of civilization.”[8]

A contemporary of Nazism, Freud has no illusions regarding human beings, and sees with an implacable lucidity the neurotic dramas of our collective soul. He describes the process by which a culture idealizes itself, stimulating the narcissistic pride in its members as a compensation for the repression of their animal instincts. In extreme cases, national pride and racism provoke war and crime. And there are mild cases as well. Many an individual believes the country where he lives is “by far the best one in the world”; which is a simple and relatively harmless expression of group narcissism.

Some may think a single place — like California, New York, Tibet, India, Tel Aviv, Judea and Samaria, or Jerusalem — is the sole center for the planetary awakening to brotherhood and ethics.

Naïve individuals forget that every place, and not this or that one, constitutes today a laboratory and a center of transition to a new and brotherly way of living. The capital of the future civilization — its “New and old Jerusalem” — is situated everywhere. It consists of a new dimension in human mind, a new way of relating to life and not any physical place. The physical plane city of Jerusalem and Israel may be seen as symbols of that unavoidable utopia, along with other special places around the world.

The dawn of the new civilization must confront the Dweller of the Threshold, the sum of mankind’s past mistakes. It has to enlighten and defeat human ignorance, before producing relief.  And a compensatory narcissism may invite us to believe that our own city is the best; our spiritualist association is the great light-bearer; our football team must be the champion; our political party is the only good one; our personal opinions and the books we read are the most important in the world.  Thus one fragments truth and blocks the energy of universal brotherhood. There is in this attitude a subtle, blind contempt for other points of view.

The foundations of narcissistic phenomena are set in deep layers of the human soul. The building of a civilization puts limits to the animal instincts of the individual by using as a threatening Power the idea of a fatherly and authoritarian God who dictates top-down rules. Human beings then have to obey. It is supposed that only that official, narrow “truth” has legitimacy. Outside of it, one can only find a terrible limitless “Chaos”. Everyone must ignore or fight the option of thinking independently.  The individual is supposed to blindly submit to religious authorities. He has no right to question even the most egregious falsehoods as long as they are said in the name of God. In return for his self-humiliation, he has the “right” to believe his people is superior to all the others, his religion the only good religion, and so on. From this unfortunate process countless conflicts and an unending suffering have emerged from the remotest antiquity.

When observed from delusive points of view, the spiritual path seems to offer blessings and opportunities which are as sublime in appearance as they are painfully neurotic in fact.

A realistic discernment allows one to see that as a matter of fact spirituality is the way to an unconditional peace, and not the path to personal power, however “divine” and “subtle”.  It is the road to Being, and not to Possessing. In it, one looks for that power which makes him appear as nothing.

Sincerely searching for truth, fearlessly polemical, Sigmund Freud qualifies the dominating religions of the twentieth century as “neurotic residues” through which humans create nationalistic deities.  Such “monotheistic gods” protect him from anything unknown and legitimize war. They sanctify the selfishness of the stronger, and promote the cruelty against the weaker. Thus, in spite of the libertarian message of the New Testament, Christianity has been an imperial and domineering religion.

Dogmatic religion, according to Freud, is a way to externalize the deity and declare that the sacred world it is not inside our own consciousness. As a result, one can delude oneself with the idea that is it possible to act irresponsibly and in evil ways: something external to us will save us from the consequences of our own actions.

One can buy the right to external protection through submission to the clergy and by an obedient participation in the prescribed ceremonies and ritualisms. An example of such a delusion is given by that average Christian who believes that the sacrifice of Jesus, as shown in the New Testament legends, is enough to “save” him. He is induced to think that he is a “worthless sinner” and therefore cannot live up to the wise teachings given by Jesus.

Freud writes:

“It is doubtful whether men were in general happier at a time when religious doctrines held unrestricted sway; more moral they certainly were not. They have always known how to externalize the precepts of religion and thus to nullify their intentions. The priests, whose duty it was to ensure obedience to religion, met them half-way in this. God’s kindness must lay a restraining hand on His justice. One sinned, and then one made a sacrifice or did penance and then one was free to sin once more. (….) Thus it was agreed: God alone is strong and good, man is weak and sinful.” [9]

As I first read the above sentences, in Brazil during the 1990s, I wrote down these words in my copy of the book by Freud:

“Religious ceremonies are often an externalization of the ethical precepts, so that people can feel free from the duty of practising them.”

A few pages later, Freud announces his diagnosis regarding authoritarian religions:

“Most of  (…) infantile neuroses are overcome spontaneously in the course of growing up, and this is especially true of the obsessional neuroses  of childhood. (…) Religion would thus be the universal obsessional neurosis of humanity; like the obsessional neurosis of children, it arose out of the Oedipus complex, out of the relation to the father. If this view is right, it is to be supposed that turning-away from religion is bound to occur with the fatal inevitability of a process of growth, and that we find ourselves at this very juncture in the middle of that phase of development.” [10]

According to Freud, therefore, the authoritarian Father-God corresponds to human childhood.

As mankind grows, we distance ourselves from him and discover  self-responsible  ways to have access to the divine world.  Freud said that the God in whom he believed, the Logos, or Reason, could seem to be scarcely powerful in the twentieth century, but it would play a powerful role in the future.  Regarding the true Intellect, or spiritual intelligence, he wrote:

“The voice of the intellect is a soft one, but it does not rest till it has gained a hearing. Finally, after a countless succession of rebuffs, it succeeds. This is one of the few points on which one may be optimistic about the future of mankind, but it is in itself a point of no small importance. And from it one can derive yet other hopes. The primacy of the intellect lies, it is true, in a distant, distant future, but probably not in an infinitely distant one.” [11]

Consciously or subconsciously, Freud seems to refer here to the future root-races of mankind as taught by the esoteric philosophy, and which will be guided by a strong spiritual intelligence, and no longer by the mental intelligence of the twentieth century. The humanities of the future are described by Helena Blavatsky in her work “The Secret Doctrine”.

Freud writes about his inspiring deity:

“Our god, Logos, Reason, is perhaps not a very almighty one, and he may only be able to fulfil a small part of what his predecessors have promised. If we have to acknowledge this we shall accept it with resignation.” [12]

The fact is significant that Freud, being considered as an atheist, adopts in his psychoanalytic approach to religions the same point of view of the Eastern Masters of Wisdom.

In a letter written in 1882 and addressed to the British journalist Alfred P. Sinnett, who at the time was his lay disciple, one of the Masters makes statements which caused polemics in theosophical circles. Regarding conventional and authoritarian religiosity, the teacher says:

“… I will point out the greatest, the chief cause of nearly two thirds of the evils that pursue humanity ever since that cause became a power. It is religion under whatever form and in whatsoever nation. It is the sacerdotal caste, the priesthood and the churches; it is in those illusions that man looks upon as sacred, that he has to search out the source of that multitude of evils which is the great curse of humanity and that almost overwhelms mankind. Ignorance created Gods and cunning took advantage of the opportunity.”

The teacher goes on:

“Look at India and look at Christendom and Islam, at Judaism and Fetichism. It is priestly imposture that rendered these Gods so terrible to man; it is religion that makes of him the selfish bigot, the fanatic that hates all mankind out of his own sect without rendering him any better or more moral for it. It is belief in God and Gods that makes two-thirds of humanity the slaves of a handful of those who deceive them under the false pretence of saving them. Is not man ever ready to commit any kind of evil if told that his God or Gods demand the crime?; voluntary victim of an illusionary God, the abject slave of his crafty ministers.” [13]

One must remember that in 1882 conventional religions were even worse than they are now. Authoritarian dogmatism has lost much of its power  already, although there is much to do yet. The teacher proceeds in the same letter:

“For two thousand years India groaned under the weight of caste, Brahmins alone feeding on the fat of the land, and to-day the followers of Christ and those of Mahomet are cutting each other’s throats in the names of and for the greater glory of their respective myths. Remember the sum of human misery will never be diminished unto that day when the better portion of humanity destroys in the name of Truth, morality, and universal charity, the altars of their false gods.” [14]

The similarity of this teaching with the Freudian point of view is great, and it shows at least two things.

The first one is that the founder of Psychoanalysis made a major contribution to the theosophical effort towards liberating human soul from superstitions. The other one is that Freud’s vision of human being, although not theosophical, has more than one important point in common with modern esoteric philosophy.

Just like the raja-yogis who inspire the authentic theosophical movement, Freud had a confidence in the development of science and in the widening of its horizons as a means to eliminate the causes of human suffering.

The religion of the future is slowly being born today, free from dogmas and blind obedience. Its foundation is given by more mature individuals; a man and a woman who are capable of accepting truth and searching for it even when truth seems to be uncomfortable and “politically incorrect”. Such citizens have enough common sense to live up to those ancient precepts which recommend “a clean life, an open mind, and a pure heart”.[15]

Brotherly human beings are the source of a more enduring civilization. They establish in their inner world a variety of conscious, growing connections with the immortal wisdom.


[1] See, among others, the testimony regarding a famous Tibetan “Rinpoche” in California, totally destroyed by alcoholism and by hypocrisy, in the well-documented book “Meeting the Shadow: Hidden Power of the Dark Side of Human Nature”, by Connie Zweig and Jeremiah Abrams, Chapter 29.  Read also the book “Shadows of the Sacred”, by Frances Vaughan.

[2] Vieira wrote a memorandum in 1674 defending the Jews.

[3] See the article “Vieira, the Seventeenth Century Pioneer”.

[4] “HPB”, Sylvia Cranston, Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam’s Sons, New York, 1994, 648 pp., see Part 6, Chapter 6, p. 337.

[5] “The Future of an Illusion”, Sigmund Freud, W.W. Norton & Company, New York / London, translated by James Strachey, Copyright 1961, 80 pp., Chapter I, p. 7.

[6] “The Future of an Illusion”, see p. 9.

[7] “The Future of an Illusion”, see p. 14.

[8] “The Future of an Illusion”, se p. 14.

[9] “The Future of an Illusion”, Chapter VII, p. 48.

[10] “The Future of an Illusion”, Chapter VIII, p. 55.

[11] “The Future of an Illusion”, Chapter X, p. 68.

[12] “The Future of an Illusion”, Chapter X, p. 70.

[13] “The Mahatma Letters”, TUP edition, Pasadena, California, USA, 494 pp., 1992, see Letter X, pp. 57-58.

[14] “The Mahatma Letters”, p. 58.

[15] See the article “Commentaries to the Golden Stairs”.

About the Author
Born in Brazil in 1952, Carlos Cardoso Aveline is a journalist by profession and author of the book “The Fire and Light of Theosophical Literature”. He has other works published on esoteric philosophy and ecology. The editor of “The Aquarian Theosophist”, Cardoso Aveline thinks Judaism, Jewish philosophy and Israel have important roles to play in the ethical rebirth the world needs in the present century. He lives in Portugal and directs the Library and Research Center of the Independent Lodge of Theosophists, whose associated websites include and www.HelenaBlavatsky.Org .